A workforce snapshot

Blaine County’s unemployment rate sits at 2.6% now, down from 3.1% in August. New and refreshed challenges include higher resignations, rising housing costs and upward inflationary pressures, according to the Idaho Department of Labor.

The labor market in south-central Idaho continued to show improvement in October with an increase of about 530 additional job-seekers and 600 new hires in the region, according to a Nov. 19 report from the Idaho Department of Labor.

South-central Idaho includes Blaine, Camas, Cassia, Gooding, Jerome, Lincoln, Minidoka and Twin Falls counties.

The trend was also seen across the state’s labor force—that is, the number of people either working or actively job-hunting—which expanded by about 1,470 in October for a total of 907,622 people, marking Idaho’s second largest month-over-month labor force increase this year.

Idaho also saw 22,600 new jobs filled since October 2020, with 2,270 of those filled just in the last month, the Idaho Department of Labor reported.

In south-central Idaho, 1,800 new jobs have been filled since January 2021.

“These statistics suggest there are more people finding work than those job searching,” Department of Labor regional economist Bonang Seoela stated in the report. “Standard labor market indicators suggest that conditions are improving, employment is continuing to grow and fewer people are remaining jobless.”

In Blaine County, the unemployment rate continued on a downward path in October and was estimated at 2.6%, down by 0.1% points from September and slightly below its pre-pandemic rate, Seoela reported. (In September 2020, about 7.5% of the working-age population in Blaine County was unemployed.)

For some perspective, the U.S. unemployment rate sits around 4.6% and the statewide rate at 2.8%.

Seoela noted that Blaine and Twin Falls counties accounted for over 70% of south-central Idaho’s employment growth in October.

“This is not surprising given that these counties combined account for over 50% of total employment in the region,” he stated.

Though local employment growth has “provided much-needed relief for employers and workers alike,” Seoela noted that there has been “growing unease” in the region due to job dismissals and resignations, rising housing costs and inflationary pressure, “all of which threaten to reverse much of this progress.”

In September, Idaho recorded 32,000 voluntary (quits) and involuntary (layoffs or firings) job separations, one of its highest figures in recent history, he added.

But job dismissals and resignations this fall haven’t necessarily indicated a “mass exodus out of the labor force” or a sudden decline in employment, Seoela stated. Rather, increasing job separations “may be indicative of people switching from one job to another or multiple job holders cutting down to just a few jobs.”

Blaine County’s labor force declined from roughly 12,900 employees in August to 12,760 in September. By October, the county’s labor force had expanded to 12,949, an increase of about 190 residents.

The degree of labor-market tightness in south-central Idaho also increased from around 90% to just over 100% between September and October, meaning that there is about one job opening for every job-seeker currently on the market.

According to Seoela, a reduction in the labor force typically results when people either retire, quit or get furloughed or fired and don’t continue to seek work. An increase in the labor force can result from a population increase, individuals realizing a need for extra income and other factors.

SVED looks to improve labor force participation

Harry Griffith, executive director of Sun Valley Economic Development, offered a few theories about Blaine County’s “labor and talent crisis” last week during the two-day Fall 2021 Community Forum with Visit Sun Valley and SVED.

“You can’t turn on a TV or read a blog without hearing about things like ‘the Great Resignation.’ I want to be clear that this is a national issue, not just a regional or local issue,” Griffith said.

Pre-COVID, Blaine County’s workforce participation rate was 67%, Griffith said. Since then, it has fallen to just above 60%.

“What we’ve seen is a drop of 6 percentage points over the last 18 months and that’s quite relevant in a community the size of ours,” he said. “That is the equivalent of 1,400 job seekers who have fallen away for whatever reason. Compounding that, I think our communities have also been heavily reliant on visa workers and over the last 18 months we have been short visa workers.”

Griffith cited several reasons “why people are leaving the active workforce and do not want to participate,” including “low pay, bad benefits, no housing, no child care and better opportunities elsewhere.”

“I read somewhere that video games are potentially a reason why people, you know, the new generation spends a lot of time on video games and they can’t work a full-time job and play the video game,” Griffith said. “But there is no one reason that fits all sizes in this community.”

Griffith was most concerned with service workers resigning from the hospitality sector, as the industry represents two-thirds of Blaine’s economy. He added that a recent survey had indicated that a majority of people from the sector believed “nothing” would change their mind to go back to work.

“People are done with hospitality for a wide variety of reasons, some of those including COVID fears and things that are quite reasonable,” he said. “We have a lot of work to do to fill the gaps.”

Once source of hope its that Sun Valley Co. and Aspen Skiing Co., which owns the Limelight Hotel, will be able to secure more J-1 and H2B visas.

“That will be a welcome relief across a lot of the businesses in our community. It’s particularly important because a lot of these visa workers work extra hours, primarily in restaurants—it’s a very important labor pool,” Griffith said.

SVED also hopes to find ways to engage “trailing spouses,” or those who move to town with their significant others without a job, increase apprenticeships and technical education programs and encourage semi-retired people or those just reaching retirement to stay in the labor force.

“A number people are looking for supplemental income,” Griffith said. “How can we find a way, whether you’re retail shop or the resort looking for yellow jacket [guest services] staff, find people to engage either as volunteers, as part-timers, as seasonal workers or otherwise? How can we get some workers to decide they might want to come here and bring or apply their talent?

“I think we need to think about some unconventional solutions.”

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